The first cheongsam was wide and loose when it first had its reputed roots during the Qing dynasty. During the republican age, the cheongsam had its golden years in Shanghai. We speak to 80-year-old Malaysian cheongsam seamstress Theresa Wong, who had the tutelage of two shanghai seamsters in Kuala Lumpur in the 1950’s.
Shanghai tailors are renowned for their cheongsam tailoring skills, so when Theresa Wong had the opportunity to be under the tutelage of one in her early 20’s in the 1950’s, she obviously jumped at it.
A Silent Master
However, the tutelage was not an apprenticeship as the relationship was strictly business-oriented and no knowledge was directly imparted.
“They won’t guide you or teach you anything. They are your employer and that’s it. Every skill I learned is purely by consistent, meticulous observation of how they perform the trade,” said Theresa Wong. It wasn’t an easy journey from the start for Theresa.
A Rejected Dream
As a young lady orphaned from childhood, her late uncle who was her guardian then found it shameful to allow his niece to be working outside, as it would hint that he could not afford to support her financially.
“I really, really admired the skills of the Shanghai seamsters so I begged my uncle to allow me to work, and at that time, the Shanghai seamster offered to pay me RM30 every month. My uncle said ‘no’ unless I can prove that it is well-paying up to RM50 a month,” said Theresa. To be offered the job was a big deal, since Shanghai seamsters are known to be highly skilled, so they would only take in workers with potential.
Overworking To Work
Determined to learn the trade, Theresa worked from home for the Shanghai seamster. She would take home a few pieces of cheongsam a day to sew and returned it after. She was paid only RM1 per cheongsam but by the end of that first month – she had received RM50 worth of salary – meaning that she had sewn 50 pieces of cheongsam within a month!
That sealed it and she began working as a permanent employee. Within two years, Theresa had learned all the skills she could from the Shanghai seamster.
Making A Name
Better opportunities were opening up, so Theresa moved on to work with another Shanghai seamster who now paid her RM75 per month, double from what she was earning.
As her skills improved and she began making a name for herself, she opened up her own business at a rented place and was earning a steady income. Her customers ranged from the late Tan Sri Lim Goh Tong’s wife, to the wife of the late Mr Loke Wan Tho, business magnate and millionaire of the 1960’s.
“At that time, only the rich people wore the cheongsam. Only after a while did the common people embrace the idea of wearing the cheongsam on a regular basis as well,” said Theresa.
Her business’ highest point was when she had six workers under her, all these in her 20’s.
Sixty years on, she continues her business today on a smaller scale at her daughter’s home where she charges a flat rate of RM300 per piece of tailored cheongsam, not including the fabric costs borne by the customer.
The ‘Sam’ Of Her Life
The secret to her success is her perfectionism, professionalism and determination to only do her best.
To illustrate this, Theresa shared, “I have had collaborations with some designers and sometimes I would be given measurements via a phone call. I got really upset and told them that I will never sew a piece of cheongsam without measuring the customer personally, because it will definitely impact the fitting of the cheongsam. It won’t work.”
This, Theresa shared, is the secret to a good cheongsam – the perfect fitting to the wearer’s body form, which requires intricacy in the seamster or seamstress’ sewing skills. A lot of it, Theresa said, is “heart work”. If you don’t love what you do, you won’t be able to do it well.
“I feel a very strong sense of accomplishment every time my customer fits perfectly into a piece of cheongsam I sew – which is usually the second and final time I meet them,” said Theresa, alluding to how perfect her cutting and fitting are.
None To Pass The Baton To
As Theresa is much older now with a number of health issues, it takes her two to three days to complete a piece of cheongsam, even though she works from 2:00 a.m. up to 8:00 p.m. each day.
Unfortunately, like many traditional trades, the 60-year cheongsam-making trade by Theresa may end at her generation, as her children are not interested to continue the business, nor does she have any students willing to learn the trade.
“My grandchild asked me, ‘Popo, why do you still sew cheongsam? My friends can easily get one at Petaling Street for RM30.’ I told them that the retail ones are different and those looking for quality, classic cheongsam will continue to come to me,” said Theresa confidently.
She added, “I really hope that someone is willing to learn the skills from me, totally free of charge, so that it can be passed on to the next generation.”
The Making of a Cheongsam
The customer buys 2 kinds of fabric of her choice, on average around 2.5 to 4 metres per piece of Cheongsam, depending on the person’s size and height. The first piece is the fabric she would be donning as her Cheongsam, while the second piece of fabric is the lining underneath her Cheongsam fabric, to prevent undergarment lines from being visible. Common materials are silk, cotton, or lace.
Theresa would take the customer’s body measurements from the neck (for the collar), shoulder width, bust, waist, girth, hip, arm circumference, height. The customer needs to let Theresa know if she has any specific design in mind or otherwise Theresa would perform the usual. The only accessories used on the cheongsam are the flower buttons.
Theresa would draw the measurements on a tracing paper and later, transfer the drawing to the lining cloth with the tailor’s chalk, and subsequently the lining cloth will be cut together with the main cheongsam fabric. The two pieces of cloth will be sewn together loosely as she begins the work of sewing the cheongsam and also sewing the piping on to the cheongsam.
After all the sewing, she also sews her own traditional flower buttons from scratch (using piping). Yes, all these flower buttons and phoenix buttons below are sewn from scratch, not bought! Once the Cheongsam is completed, the customer pays the second and final visit to Theresa’s home for the fitting.
Words by Chin Pei Ling
Photos by Faidz Zainal